Blue Raiders prepare for fall ball with performances in summer leagues

MTSU baseball teammates high-five relief pitcher Devin Conn after getting out of an inning during a game against Southern Miss on April 29, 2017. (MTSU Sidelines/Tyler Lamb)

Photo by Tyler Lamb / Sidelines Archives

At the end of the 2017 college baseball season, many players on the Middle Tennessee baseball roster set off to continue playing in a collegiate summer league across the country.

Collegiate summer leagues are a hands-on way for players to hone their skills over the off-season while playing against some of the country’s top talent.

These leagues are similar to independent league baseball at the professional level, so much so that Major League Baseball scouts attend games and some league’s use wooden bats.

Hundreds of current professional players once played summer league baseball on the same diamonds that the Blue Raiders are playing on this summer.

Another huge advantage to these leagues is that players get to experiment at positions that they may not get to try as much while with their own universities.

The Raiders have players spread all throughout the country, including players along the Carolina coast and even Alaska.

Below is a list of links to learn more about the teams and leagues the Blue Raiders were a part of this summer.

Coastal Plains League

Forest City Owls:

Ryan Kemp – Infielder (Senior)

Kemp was a breakout player for Middle Tennessee as a junior last season. After transferring from Columbia State Community College, the 5-foot-4-inch second baseman led the team with a .366 average out of the third spot in the lineup last season. This summer, however, injuries got the best of Kemp as he was only able to make it to the Mendoza line with a .200 average. After a successful surgery, his status for fall ball remains unknown.

Chase Hensley – Infielder/Right-handed pitcher (Senior)

Hensley has shown signs of being a guy that the Raiders could plug into the middle of the lineup in his career so far, but the amount of first baseman the Raiders have had in the past has limited his playing time. This season will be no different with the return of Kevin Dupree from injury, so Hensley will have to battle to become an everyday player. Hensley had a rough summer, collecting only two hits in 24 at-bats. On the mound, Hensley gave up three hits and two earned runs in seven batters faced. With plenty of potential, the question with the Humboldt, Tennessee, native is whether or not he can put it all together.

High Point Thomasville Hi-Toms:

Jake Wyrick – Left-handed pitcher (Senior)

Wyrick is the man new Blue Raider pitching coach Caleb Longshore will most likely lean on to be the ace of his staff this season after throwing a team-high 62.2 innings last year. A former New York Mets draft pick in 2015, Wyrick is looking to regain the form he had as a freshman at Cleveland State Community College and get scouts talking about him again.  This summer for HP-Thomasville, Wyrick performed well out of the bullpen. In 17 appearances, the southpaw had a 2-2 record with 40 strikeouts and three saves. The senior has proven that he can pitch in any situation, and he may be called upon late in games as well as in starts in 2018.

Alaska Baseball League

Mat-su Miners

Austin Dennis – Outfielder (Junior)

Dennis played a big part in helping the Miners win the Alaska Baseball League championship this past summer. He was the usual leadoff hitter for the Miners this summer and played all over the outfield, while also spending time at second base and on the mound. In 43 games played, Dennis hit .257 with one home run and 14 runs batted in. The Alaska League all-star also did a lot of damage on the base paths, swiping 12 bags and coming around to score a total of 29 runs. In six outings on the mound, Dennis sported a 2.40 earned run average with nine strikeouts in 15 innings pitched.

Blake Benefield – Outfield (Junior)

Benefield certainly picked up his play near the end of the year for the Raiders, and it carried over into summer league play. Over 45 games played, “Benny” hit .253 with six home runs and 31 RBIs from his spot in the middle of the Miner lineup. The former Siegel Star also participated in the Alaska Baseball League’s home run derby before he joined Dennis in the all-star game. Defensively, Benefield got some infield time in addition to his spot in the outfield, playing some first base for the Miners.

Show-Me League:

Show-Me Stars

Manuel Lopez – Outfielder ( Redshirt Sophomore)

The Dominican-born Lopez slugged his way to the top of many statistical categories for the Show-Me Stars this summer. “Manny” will most likely take over the outfield spot vacated by Brad Jarreau for the Raiders this season and with the numbers he put up this summer, he may have became the clear front-runner for the job going into fall ball. In 35 games, Lopez hit .388 with four home runs and 26 RBIs while drawing 21 walks. Lopez also surprised teams with his speed, stealing 14 bases and scoring 31 runs. Manny led the team in batting average and home runs, while finishing second on the team in RBIs. In the league, he was tied for the lead in home runs, second in batting average and third in RBIs.

Ohio Valley League:

Madisonville Miners

Alex Carignan – Catcher (Redshirt Freshman)

Murfreesboro native Alex Carignan will battle with Aaron Antonini and fifth-year senior Will Shnure for meaningful time behind the dish for the Raiders this upcoming season. Coming off of a medical redshirt year, Carignan got some valuable experience this summer in the wood bat Ohio Valley League. In some of his first collegiate at-bats ever, Carignan battled his way to a .362 average with one home run and 23 RBIs in 34 games. The Siegel High product’s average was good enough for second on the team. While being the team’s primary catcher, Carignan also got to spend some time at first base over the summer.

Darrell Freeman – Outfielder (Sophomore)

The speedy outfielder made the most of his limited playing this summer.  In 42 at-bats, Freeman boasted a .310 average with two home runs and five RBIs. Defensively, he provided the Miners with a solid option in the outfield by showing off his range on multiple occasions from his spot in centerfield.

Paducah Chiefs

Grant Williams – Right-handed pitcher (Sophomore)

The big righty was one of the Raiders’ most versatile pitchers as a freshman. Williams pitched as both a reliever and as a starter last year and could very well be asked to do the same in his sophomore campaign. With the Chiefs this summer, Williams had a 5-2 record in eight appearances to go along with 40 strikeouts. His five wins were more than any other Chief and third most in the OVL.

Fulton Railroaders

Carter Bair – Right-handed pitcher (Junior)

After fighting through nagging injuries in 2017, Bair was used mostly to eat up innings last season for the Raiders. That role could change this year, as he is now one of the more veteran guys in the Blue Raider bullpen. Over the summer, Bair got roughed up out of the bullpen for the Railroaders. In his 23 innings pitched, he had an ERA of 9.00. The one bright spot Bair had was that he struck out 26 batters, good for sixth on the team.

South Florida Collegiate Baseball League:

Pompano Beach Clippers

Andy Rivera – Right-handed pitcher (Junior)

The hard-throwing Rivera comes to Middle Tennessee this season as a JUCO transfer from the Chattanooga State Tigers. Rivera started and was the winning pitcher in the SFCBL Championship game, as he helped lead his Clippers to their third SFCBL title. Rivera was clocked at 95 mph this summer on his fastball and his hot play showed on the stat-sheet. The Miami native didn’t give up a single run in his 17.1 innings pitched this summer. Rivera also collected four saves in the bullpen and struck out 27 batters.

Northwoods League:

Battle Creek Bombers

Aaron Antonini – Catcher (Sophomore)

Antonini was thrust into the lineup as a freshman due to an injury to Will Shnure in 2017, and he didn’t disappoint. The Florida-born backstop was reliable with the bat in his hands and showed a good arm when called upon to relieve Chaz Vesser. This summer, Antonini is currently hitting .240 with one home run and 10 RBIs. The sophomore even pitched two innings of a game. The promising Antonini will pose a big challenge to Shnure for the starting catcher job this spring.

Kalamazoo Growlers

Drew Huff – Infielder/Right-handed pitcher (Junior)

The man in the hot corner has enjoyed a good first half of his career in a Middle Tennessee uniform, hitting .288 with three home runs and 42 RBIs. He’s also been successful on the mound, sporting a 2-0 record with three saves and a 3.63 ERA in 14 appearances. Going into the second half of his career, Huff will be called upon to be a big producer in the offense, as well as a guy that can be used on the mound when needed. Through 56 games this summer with the Kalamazoo Growlers, Huff is hitting a respectable .259 with 32 RBIs, which currently sits at second-most on the team. The former Riverdale High standout has also pitched 13 times and collected three saves and 17 strikeouts along the way.

Texas Collegiate Baseball League:

Texas Marshalls

Phillip Kunsa – Outfielder (Senior)

Kunsa proved that he is a good option as an outfielder for the Raiders in his first taste of  playing time last season as a junior. In 20 games, Kunsa hit .243 for the Raiders in 2017 and found some pop in his bat this summer with four home runs as a Texas Marshall, a number that is tied for tops on the team.  Kunsa will most likely provide the Raiders with a good option to spell guys in the outfield on their days off, and with the power he has exhibited this summer, he should be a guy head coach Jim McGuire can feel confident turning to as a pinch-hitter with runners in scoring position.

Ed Bailey League:

Strawberry Plains Yellow Jackets

Blake Stansberry – Right-handed pitcher (Redshirt Junior)

Stansberry is another veteran in the Raider bullpen that will be called upon to be used as a long-reliever this year. He played in the Ed Bailey League (named after former big league catcher Ed Bailey who was a resident in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee), which is an amateur league that has a mixture of high school players, college players and guys with former professional experience. Stansberry’s Yellow Jackets won the league championship on August 3. The Knoxville native will lean on advice he got from former pros in the league to aid him this upcoming spring.

Sunbelt League

Atlanta Crackers

Zach Keenan – Right-handed pitcher (Freshman)

Keenan, who announced a few days ago he decommitted from the College of Charleston, had a good summer of work for the Sunbelt League’s Atlanta Crackers. In 10 games of work, including seven starts, the Georgia native finished with a 4-1 record and a 2.04 ERA. Keenan struck out 50 batters this summer and only walked eight. His great command may land him a spot in the Blue Raider rotation as a possible mid-week guy this upcoming spring.

*All stats are as of August 11, 2017*

Follow MTSU sports reporter Anthony Fiorella on Twitter at @A_Fiorella74 for more coverage.

To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email

For more sports stories, follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter and Periscope at @Sidelines_Sport.

Previous Raiders' new-look defensive line strives to be a force in 2017
Next 'The Bachelorette' hands out final rose, receives backlash from fans

1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    September 5, 2017

    Thanks for including a mention of Phillip Kunsa who was on the Texas Marshals summer collegiate team this year.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.